Jan 2 2019
At some point during the Best of 2018 festivities, you’ll be reading about Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings. It is a construct of live performance inspiration and studio editing innovation, and it is a product of four different ensembles performing in four different cities and expressing four different perspectives on the modern sound. As much as any recording of recent vintage, it symbolizes the jazz scene today: A diversity of sounds reflecting the diversity of the planet. It’s where we’re at.
The introduction to last year’s Best Of 2017 list summed up the credo of this site. It also encapsulates the struggle writers and musicians alike encounter as they try to put words to all of this magic spun into existence right there before us. If you haven’t read that intro, do so now, and if you need a refresher, then follow that link. Because it’s time to move past this exercise of figuring out what to call this music. Sure, it might be useful if someone came up with a clever tag to apply to the modern jazz scene, a be-bop for the present day, but to focus on that confounding endeavor has the inadvertent consequence of diminishing the modern scene’s strongest trait… its diversity. The ephemeral nature of the modern sound is evidence of the limitless opportunities to surprise, and with it, an inherent quality almost impervious to naming.
And that’s where the focus should be trained. It matters less what it is and far more where it’s at. Because the diversity of the modern scene, though as difficult to corral as capturing clouds in one’s embrace, can be represented by a tangle of roots planted as firmly in the earth and the soil beneath our feet. The language of jazz remains a constant even under the forces of creative evolution, but the creativity that informs the approach to those constants is inevitably influenced by where the musicians are from… the folk and popular musics specific to their spot on the earth, the languages they communicate by, the common forms of dance and labor, the economic and social and political vagaries that shape things around them, the places they’ve been and the places they dream of going, and, perhaps most notably, the artists in their orbit. As part of a larger discussion about the volume of attention focused on New York City jazz, Vijay Iyer makes an insightful observation about why New York City remains the jazz capital of the world. The idea that NYC behaves as a convergence point for many creative perspectives is about as inarguable a fact as you’ll encounter in a debate about jazz. But in the same way that jazz is no longer framed by a few large music labels, the importance of New York City as a landmark for the Sound Of Jazz Today has greatly diminished.
The internet has opened up a world to us. We can live anywhere, in the middle of a big city or a remote location ignored by mapmakers, and as long as we can get a signal, a world of music is right there in front of us. Same goes for the musicians attempting to reach us. And that access pulls back the veil on the vast range of expressions that signify the modern jazz scene, and brings to light those roots that tie the artists to the sphere of influences that shape their expressionism… even as they assimilate the foundations of jazz into their own language. How many languages exist on this planet? How many different instruments are there to channel our creativity? And in combination, is there any ceiling on the ways in which artists may express themselves? As it becomes increasingly evident how these influences affect the vagaries of the modern jazz sound, it becomes obvious that the word Jazz is as all-encompassing, and usefully vague, as the concept of Earth, and perhaps the best direction to take in encapsulating the modern jazz scene is view it through the roots of the artists themselves.
In 2017, I spoke of the music comprising the Best Of list as being some of it jazz and some of it not-jazz, but all of it being created by musicians of the tradition. In 2018, as Makaya McCraven’s four-city-four-ensemble-four-perspectives recording illustrates, it is more important to view those traditions through the foundations of the artists and not the art, of the roots of the musicians and not so much by the roots of the music. Because while the latter is the basis for so much sonic joy, it’s the former that is ultimately the source of the inspiration and surprise and evolution that will keep jazz alive and heading down a path into the future, one generation after the next, like a golden age with no end.
Bird is the Worm is a catalog of that evolution. This site documents music from all corners of the globe, and from all types of people. The Best of 2018 list is a snapshot of a year in albums. But, truly, these lists never end.
As in previous years, I’m looking for albums that deliver an impact across the board… cerebral, physical and emotional aka head, heart and soul. It’s not enough that they’re simply a very good album. They have to possess gravitas or offer something a little bit different, or, conversely, present the familiar better than anybody else on the scene. Bonus points are awarded for wild creativity and experimentalism. These are albums, released approximately between November of last year and November of this year, that make a statement of who the individual artists and ensembles are at that point in time, and, when the list is taken as a whole, a reflection of the rich diversity and immense strength of the modern jazz and improvised music scene.
And so, with the preamble out of the way… Let’s begin.
Welcome to the Bird is the Worm Best of 2018